The Fifthteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2013
Berkeley Prize 2013

Josh Safdie


Josh Safdie, Associate AIA
Institute for Human Centered Design
Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt)
Boston, United States

Urban Visionaries – Expanded Additional Thoughts

My students were asked this semester to stand in the shoes of the urban visionaries of the past and to consider the future of cities from a “whole cloth” perspective.  The focus of their thinking was intended to get them to imagine cities as more environmentally sustainable, and more inclusive.  When I say that their perspective was a “whole cloth” perspective, I mean the following:  The typical approach to urban planning studios is to identify the problems of our cities, and then to imagine narrow strategies which incrementally improve them.  This has a great grounding in reality, but it does not encourage creative thinking, particularly for students.  Instead, I asked my students to think as broadly and fantastically as possible.  It took a little while, but once they warmed to the idea the students invented entirely new cities and, in some cases, even planets.

I found that thinking about environmental sustainability was quite easy for the students, as it is very much in the zeitgeist of architectural education in the States today.  They see it on-line, in magazines, and in almost every one of their classes.  Thinking about human diversity, on the other hand, was more challenging for them – and so as the semester progressed I found myself devoting more and more effort to supporting this particular set of ideas.  A turning point in this effort was our “City Walk”, where on a sunny Saturday morning we took a walk through downtown Boston with our user/expert colleagues.  The students got to witness first-hand the challenges of negotiating the oldest subway system in the country while using a power chair, carrying on a conversation while walking on a busy street with someone who is blind in one eye from a stroke, etc.  It was during this experience, which happened in October, when I really began to notice a significant shift in the students’ approach to the studio and to their work.

Our “City Walk” included two user/experts.  “Brian” is a man in his late forties who uses a power chair to navigate the city.  Brian has only one leg and neither of his upper limbs is fully formed – so his physical presentation was definitely noted by the students the first time he joined us for class.  “Tina,” on the other hand, has less visible limitations – she suffered a stroke some years ago and now has minor hemiplegia, which includes limited vision in one eye.  Both Brian and Tina are people who have turned their experience of disability into a professional expertise (as authors, lecturers, consultants, etc.) and so they were quite adept at fielding the students’ questions, putting them at ease about the ‘difficulties’ they faced during the City Walk, and more.  Because of their varied abilities, Brian and Tina also were able to help the students better understand the wide variety of human ability that Universal Design aspires to serve.

As the “City Walk” continued, the students were able to warm up to talking with the user/experts about their experiences.  The fact that it was a warm and sunny fall day in New England certainly helped, but I think the experience of being ‘at loose ends’ in the city for a few hours was really freeing for everyone.  The act of walking also allowed smaller groups of individuals to cluster together for more private conversations, and the physical presence of the City (and all of its barriers!) also gave the students and the user/experts plenty of opportunities to discuss these things in real time.  Brian did a great job of walking the students explicitly through every step he has to take in order to ride the [mostly] accessible subway, and explained to them the social aspects of his experience as well as the specific mobility-related aspects:  i.e., “I have to flag the train down and make everyone wait while the conductor gets out of the booth, pulls out the ramp, and allows me to board.”

At the end of the “City Walk,” we took the time to stop for a coffee and talk about our shared experience.  During this talk and afterward, the students told me (and our user/experts) how valuable – and how eye-opening – the experience had been.  One student said over coffee, “I will never, ever look at the City the same way again.”  Another said, “I think an experience like this should be required for every student in our program.”

From that point onward, the conversations about inclusive design were easier.  Disability was still a primary topic because it was still a body of ideas that was foreign to them, but the students easily and readily expanded the conversation to issues of social and economic justice, democracy, race, class, and race.  They became aware of subtly-ingrained biases, such as one student who made an earlier vignette about a green industry in their imagined city and the day of the crit suddenly noticed that she had collaged in people of color doing the manual labor and white men wearing the lab coats and holding the clipboards.  These kinds of self-realizations happened repeatedly throughout the semester, and it became quite common for students to comfortably “check” each other on these issues.  Brian and Tina came to several ‘pin-ups’ of student work over the remainder of the semester, and they were able to engage the students on this level as well.

Despite this shift mid-way through the semester, I still think that the final “Utopian” projects that the students produced favored environmental sustainability much more than inclusive design.  I said as much during the final review of this portion of the work, and one of my colleagues from MassArt disagreed.  He actually said that he felt that issues of inclusivity permeated throughout the work – so much so that it wasn’t even necessarily obvious.  He said that he felt the students had embraced this attitude to such a degree that they didn’t feel the need to ‘make a point of it’ because they didn’t even see it as ‘unusual’ or ‘new.’  I’m not sure that I agree with this one colleague’s evaluation of the students’ work, but it did cause me to think differently about what I was doing.  For me, my colleague’s comment really raised the question:  should the studio make disability a primary and obvious focus since it is so rarely addressed in their other courses, or is it really better for a broader, less specific attitude about inclusive design to be developed more subtly in the work.  I see the former approach as a chance to truly make a statement about these issues, but I see the latter as a way of “normalizing” an issue that has most often existed only outside the margins of architectural education.

Ultimately, I do think that an earlier, more overt conversation about disability and diversity may have benefitted the students even more.  I really didn’t want the class to be “the disability studio” because within our work at IHCD we are constantly trying to expand the conversation to be more broadly applicable.  But for the students, I actually think a narrow focus on design for disability – at least at the outset – would have given them a more solid base from which they could then expand in their own directions.  Despite my colleague’s comment at our review, I don’t think that the tacit, “this is a world for everyone” approach is enough for me.  It’s too non-specific, and it’s too ‘slippery’ – it allows the students to simply make claims about inclusivity and diversity, and doesn’t require them to play out the specifics of how it works.  I also feel that the final work does not stand strong enough as an example of a different way of thinking about design.  As free-thinking and creative as some of it may have been, if falls short of making the fundamental argument which I wanted it to make.

As I am now writing this several weeks into the second semester, I can say that this semester’s course has begun with a very explicit focus on design for disability and I am enthusiastic about the early returns.  As the “warm-up” project for a multi-family housing studio, I had the students spend the first weekend of the semester measuring and drawing their own apartments.  We then, on the second day of class, visited the home of a young woman who is a wheelchair user, which our studio had renovated several years back.  In “Sally,” a young woman in her mid-twenties who had graduated from a University right down the street from MassArt, the students could recognize a true peer.  And Sally’s personal story (she lost the use of her legs due to an accident in her late teens) resonated with the students, allowing them very easily to recognize that any one of them could share Sally’s own story.

After spending the afternoon talking with Sally, I sent the students home to re-design their own homes to accommodate a sudden and significant change in their own mobility.  I encouraged them as much as possible to make the narrative real; if it helped them, to tell the story of what led to their change in mobility, and to tell the story of how their family (or friends, or roommates) had rallied to help them adjust.  The one-on-one conversations I had with the students at their desks as they took on this assignment were really quite revealing.  Among the things my students told me:  “I’ve never actually talked with a person in a wheelchair before,” “I couldn’t believe how easily Sally was able to get around her apartment,” “I told my parents about this assignment, and they sat down with me to figure out together how we would change our house to make it work for all of us.”

As the semester continues, we will move away from this explicit focus on design for wheeled mobility, but I believe that this fundamental sea change at the beginning of the semester will have the same kind of lasting impact that our “City Walk” had last semester.  However, coming as it did during the first week of class I hope that its effects will be stronger and further-reaching.  My goal for this semester is to get the students to design for a much wider range of people than they ever have before, and for those people to be front-and-center in the work.

In May, you all can tell me how I did….




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Like everyone else, this worker in Mexico needs transportation to his job. Public transport needs to be accessible for persons with mobility, sensory, and cognitive disabilities.
Persons with disabilities around the world are promoting transport systems that provide mobility for everyone. Mexican disability advocates are shown meeting with local transit officials to promote accessible transport. AEI has published guides to assist planners and advocates of inclusive transportation.
An accessible travel chain begins with safe streets and sidewalks. This street in Foshan, China, has separate rights-of-way for pedestrians, human-powered vehicles, and motor-powered vehicles.
Disability advisors at Rio de Janeiro’s Independent Living Center monitored access features for this street crossing, part of the Rio City Project.
Tactile guideways and tactile warning strips assist blind and sight-impaired pedestrians as well as others in Foshan, China.
Tactile warnings alert this blind person crossing a mid-street island in San Francisco, USA.
Busy intersections benefit from pedestrian controlled buttons and assist blind persons to cross through sound and vibration signals
Tactile warnings protect blind persons – and all other passengers – from getting too close to the platform edge in transit stations.
This footway adjacent to a road in Tanzania is protected by curb pieces which separate motor traffic from pedestrians and bicycles. Such basic safety measures are needed to prevent pedestrian injuries along roadways in many countries.
Even better, pedestrian and non-motorized traffic can be kept safely removed from motorized traffic by accessible sidewalks separated from the roadway, in this case by a well-designed drainage system along a main road in Tanzania. Speed bumps are used to slow traffic at crosswalks.
This pedestrian crosswalk provides level access to a bus island at an inter-modal transfer center in Mexico City.
Photo by T. Rickert, courtesy of DFID (UK) and TRL (UK).
Ticket vending machines should be low enough for use by wheelchair users and all short persons, as illustrated by the good design of this machine at a BART station in the San Francisco Bay area, USA.
Stairs are often retrofitted with stair lifts in transit terminals, as here in a Tokyo subway station. However, in new construction, elevators should be considered where possible.
A wheelchair user takes the elevator from the platform level of the Shenzhen, China, railroad station.
Wide doors are needed to accommodate wheelchair riders entering fare-paid areas of transit terminals, as in this subway station in Rio de Janeiro.
Everyone can safely board this BART train, due to a minimal horizontal and vertical gap.
However, care must be taken that horizontal gaps are not too wide. The orange “gap filler” pops up when the doors open in San Francisco’s Muni Metro, assuring a safe gap.
Small portable ramps can provide inexpensive access in many rail stations, as shown here in Tokyo.
All passengers, and especially deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers, benefit from well-located visual information, as with this route display on board a train to the Hong Kong airport.
Advocates Anjlee Agarwal (left) and Sanjeev Sachdeva board the accessible Delhi Metro on its inaugural run.
Photo courtesy of Sanjay Sakaria and Samarthya, from Amar Ujjala Indian Daily
Express buses in Curitiba, Brazil, exemplify universal design. All passengers, including those with disabilities, quickly board with level entry. Similar Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems operate in Quito, Ecuador; Bogota, Colombia, and a growing number of cities around the world.
Photo by Charles Wright, Inter-American Development Bank.
Construction of this Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) trunk line corridor in Pereira, Colombia, symbolizes the rapid spread of BRT systems around the world. BRT systems lend themselves to universal design, but details must be monitored carefully to maximize accessibility.
Although most BRT busways are on broad thoroughfares, this exclusive single-direction bus lane nearing completion in Pereira illustrates that BRT systems can sometimes be built on narrow streets.
This and above photo by T. Rickert courtesy of World Bank
The photo shows an articulated bus docking at a Bus Rapid Transit station in León, Mexico.
Pre-paid passengers inside a station board a high-capacity BRT bus in León.
This and above photo courtesy of Sistema Integrado de Transporte Masivo de León
A prototype low-floor bus is tested in New Delhi adjacent to a platform the same height as the bus floor.
A closeup of the same bus stop illustrates the advantages of fast boarding for all passengers from platforms that eliminate the need for climbing steps to board.
This and above photo courtesy of Gerhard Menckhoff of the World Bank.
This prototype lift-equipped bus serves Mamelodi Township in South Africa. Note the excellent use of contrasting colors.
Photo by T. Rickert, courtesy of DFID (UK) and TRL (UK).
Mexico City officials inaugurated service in 2001 with 50 new buses equipped with lifts and other access features.
Photo courtesy of Marìa Eugenia Antunez.
In addition to a wheelchair lift, this bus in Mexico City has a retractable step beneath the front entrance.
This low-floor bus in Warsaw, Poland, uses an inexpensive hinged ramp which provides easy boarding for passengers with disabilities.
A low-floor bus in Hong Kong also exhibits excellent color contrast, using a bright yellow on key edges and surfaces.
Transit systems around the world have reserved seating for seniors and passengers with disabilities, and often for pregnant women as well, as found on this TransMilenio bus in Bogotá, Colombia.
Even when bus stops are not accessible to wheelchair users, access for seniors and others with disabilities can be enhanced by a level all-weather pad even in the absence of paved sidewalks. The photo is from a TransMilenio feeder route in Bogotá.
This and above photo by T. Rickert courtesy of World Bank.
Thousands of Mexico City’s small inaccessible microbuses are being recycled and replaced with larger vehicles, often with better access features.
One such feature is this priority seating located behind the driver where there is extra leg room and it is easier for blind passengers to hear the driver call out key stops.
Photo by T. Rickert, courtesy of DFID (UK) and TRL (UK).
In other new buses in Mexico City, a wide rear door has low steps and is easily accessed by semi-ambulatory passengers from a raised sidewalk, but requires that drivers carefully pull in to the curb.
Photo by T. Rickert, courtesy of DFID (UK) and TRL (UK).
Community initiatives are playing a growing role in providing accessible door-to-door transport in many countries. This accessible van in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, belongs to the six-vehicle fleet of Persatuan Mobiliti.
Photo courtesy of Persatuan Mobiliti
Artist’s conception of a three-wheeled door-to-door vehicle connecting with an accessible ramped platform with bridge at a bus stop at a key site.
This prototype three-wheeled vehicle was built with AEI’s assistance by Kepha Motorbikes in Nairobi, Kenya.
Detail showing entry via a ramp at the rear of the test vehicle.
This and above photo courtesy of Wycliffe Kepha.
This accessible bicycle rickshaw in India has a rear door which serves as a ramp.
Photo courtesy of Bikash Bharati Welfare Society and Lalita Sen.
A public meeting in Cali, Colombia, discusses accessibility to Bus Rapid Transit systems. Readers can go to the Bus Rapid Transit Accessibility Guidelines in our Resources section, under the links to the World Bank.
Photo by T. Rickert, courtesy of the World Bank.
In this version, the bridge piece is mounted under the platform and put into place by the bus driver.
This and above photo courtesy of DFID (UK) and CSIR Transportek (South Africa).
This test in South Africa of a prototype platform for use at key sites shows an alternative approach to access for wheelchair users.
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